Heseltine moves to third snub in monopoly game

BY NIGEL COPE

AND MARY FAGAN

Some of Britain's best-known games such as Monopoly, Cluedo and Subutteo, were at the centre of a regulatory row last night as Michael Heseltine, President of the board of Trade, appeared to deliver a final snub to Sir Bryan Carsberg, the out-going director-general of the Office of Fair Trading, who steps down in May.

At issue is the £50m bid by Hasbro, the US toy giant, to buy Waddingtons Games, the Yorkshire-based toys and games group. Sir Bryan had recommended that the bid be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Yesterday Mr Heseltine overruled him.

The DTI said: "In making his decision, Mr Heseltine took into account the director-general of Fair Trading's recommendation that the acquisition should be referred to the MMC. In departing from the director-general's recommendation, Mr Heseltine considered on balance that the competition issues raised by the merger were not sufficient to justify a reference."

It is the third time in Sir Bryan's two-year tenure at the OFT that he has found his suggestions overruled by the DTI.

In February 1993 Mr Heseltine delivered two snubs in the same month. One involved the acquisition by GEC of Phillips Infra Red Defence Components. Mr Heseltine also waved through the ultimately unsuccessful attempt by leisure group Airtours to take over its rival, Owners Abroad.

The Government has yet to announce a successor to Sir Bryan, who is leaving to head the International Accounting Standards Committee.

Some observers suggest that the OFT post is regarded as not allowing sufficient powers.

Last week Sir Bryan called for a single competition authority to replace the UK's tripartite structure of the OFT, the Monopolies Commission and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Speaking before the Commons Trade and Industry select committee, Sir Bryan said the authority he envisaged would have the power to investigate cases, grant or refuse clearances or exemptions, and impose fines or other remedies. Companies would be able to appeal against any decision through the courts.

Sir Bryan also said that he saw no reason for ministers to become involved in all the decisions on implementation of MMC reports, as happens in the UK at present, "because most of the issues are not political".

He made clear his frustration at lack of government action not to implement changes in UK competition law. The Government has since 1989 been promising to toughen legislation on anti-restrictive practices. It has also said it will increase the OFT director-general's powers of investigation, but so far nothing concrete has been done.

The deal to buy Waddingtons Games adds Monopoly, Cluedo and Dingbats to Hasbro's porfolio of toys, which includes Action Man, Sindy and My Little Pony. Hasbro is already the world's largest toy company with sales in excess of $3.5bn.

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